Monday, August 17, 2015

The Ankou and the Legend of Death

The Bretons, those inhabitants of France's Brittany region, are a mysterious people. Traditionally dressed in black, proud and cider-loving, it is also said they are exceptionally stubborn, at once cold and welcoming, often times brooding and hard working. One of their key traits is their openness and adventurous spirit. Indeed today, much of Brittany's people reside outside of Brittany, and throughout history, France's soldiers and naval officers counted many Bretons, of which several were my ancestors.

I often say, employing a nationalistic shortcut, that I am one-quarter French, from my grandfather.
He, on the other hand, would have me say that it is not so, that I am in fact, one quarter Breton.

Brittany in popular culture

There are four things the world takes for granted from the Bretons.

First, there is the Breton stripes - those ubiquitous blue and white marine stripes which traditionally constituted the Breton sailor's uniform and which today, through a fashionable trajectory arguably begun by Coco Chanel, can manifest itself through all manner of clothing, from dresses, bags, hats, tshirts, jumpsuits to coats.  For the last couple of years, the Breton stripes have been a force of fashion, a staple of many women's wardrobes. And if Jean-Paul Gaultier's Fall/Winter 2015-2016 show is anything to go by, Brittany's rich black velvets and magnificent gold embroidery may future impact our closets.

 Left: Traditional costume of Brittany
Right: Sample from Gaultier's 2015-2016 Fall/Winter collection

And then there are the French crêpes. There is nothing French about crêpes, let me tell you. They are 100% Bretons.

Another gorgeous Breton dessert is the emerging and fabulous Kouign Amann, a 19th century Breton culinary invention. This is a rich buttery pastry that Bostonions, Singaporians, Japanese and New Yorkans have newly 'discovered' and which graces any self-respecting foodie's blog. If you haven't tried Kouign Amann, I pity you.

And finally the top Brittany export par excellence, is prolific author, Jules Verne. Born and raised in the city of Nantes, an explorer both of the world and of futuristic possibilities, this celebrated father of science fiction has left an indelible mark in many languages.

The Land of Death

The Breton traditionally saw today's Brittany region as composed of 'countries'. 
The above map shows the Breton name for each country ("Bro" means "Country")
Note that France is called "Bro-C'Hall"

Recently I have been delving deeper into my ancestors' legends and beliefs, seeking to uncover their soul and temperament. What I have discovered is that much like the Venetians, they were traditionally a people preoccupied with death. Their psyche was entwined with the memory of those who have passed and there existed only a thin veil between their existence and the world of souls.

According to Anatole le Braz, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural does not exist for the Bretons, at least in the meaning we ascribe to these; the living and the dead are both inhabitants of the world and they exist in perpetual relation one with the other.

The entire Brittany region - from the mountains to the sea, from Brest to St Malo, from the Mont St Michel to Angers - is they say, filled with erring souls that cry and wail.  Brittany is above anything, the Land of Death. The dead live there with the living in close intimacy. Souls are not confined to the tombs of the cemetery; they wander by night through the large roads and the desert paths.

The Ankou - ancient Celtic legend

This way of living gave rise to many legends and to rich and varied set of symbols all with their own significance as concerns death.

One of their legends concerned l'Ankou. Who is this Ankou? For the Bretons, the Ankou is the servant of death, the personification of death. If he draws near you, usually at night when the moon is full, you will perceive first the rattling of his advancing horse-drawn cart. Then he emerges - hideous, a spectrally tall and thin old man with black sunken eyes, as though they are not at all there. He stands upon his cart, his long white hair hanging well past this shoulders, and he is clad with a black vest and a long brim felt hat.

A Breton is overcome with anguish at the mere sight of l'Ankou. The sound of his cart, the sight of him, presages only death. If you have seen the Ankou, then you have been gifted with a glimpse into the world of the dead. Seeing the Ankou is a sign of impending death among one of your close ones. Either that, or your own death will soon follow.

In the commune of La Roche Maurice, not far from the town of Brest in Brittany, a 17th century (1639-1640) church gives a chilling illustration of the Ankou symbolism. The church's principal entrance features the Ankou as a skeletal engraving with the words, "Je vous tue tous" - I kill you all. In what I conceive as a marriage between legend and Christianity, here, the Ankou warns us to be wary of our eventual death, he serves as a reminder. Nearby, another Latin inscription written in 1640 announces, "Souviens-toi, homme que tu n'es que poussière" - Remember, man that you are mere dust.

Perhaps it is this memory, the omnipresence of death, that sees the traditional Breton embrace his ever mourning black clothing. With such a preoccupation, the Breton could almost be thought of as the original Goth, but his beliefs lie beyond.

Anatole Le Braz, Cultural preserver

I feel that they are best represented by celebrated Breton culture expert, Anatole Le Braz, "The Bard of Brittany".  Anatole's work is a precious heritage considering that he lived during a period when the Breton language, the only living Celtic language in France, was banned from being taught in school and children were punished and humiliated for speaking it. This ban, effective from 1880 to 1950, meant that Anatole's collection and translation of Breton legends and cultural traditions was not only a defiance of French hegemony, but also a gift for generations to come. In his childhood and beyond, my grandfather could never be taught his own language. Today, Breton is the only Celtic language currently in use in Continental Europe.


An excerpt from Anatole de Braz's La Légende de la Mort, 1892
For non-French speakers, I have provided my translation in Italics.

Si nombreuses que soient les âmes qui demeurent avec les vivants dans leurs basses maisons de granit ou qui vivent dans les cimetières et les landes désertes, elles passent invisibles à la plupart des yeux et il est peu d’oreilles qui entendent dans l’air calme du soir leur vol silencieux et doux. Cependant on n’est jamais en ce monde sans nouvelles de cet autre monde de mystères, du monde des âmes et de la mort. Il en vient sans cesse comme de vagues rumeurs, des bruits lointains, des signes, des présages. Nul ne meurt sans que quelqu’un de ses proches n’en ait été averti. Certaines personnes ont entre toutes le don de voir, elles lisent plus aisément au livre de l’avenir, elles pénètrent tous les secrets de la mort, elles ont sans cesse des avertissements, des pressentiments ; elles aperçoivent des signes qui restent cachés aux yeux de ceux qu’absorbent les soucis de ce monde. C’est le bruit que font autour de nous les gens et les bêtes qui éteint pour nous ces voix légères qui viennent du pays des morts ; si nous n’étions pas pris tout entiers par nos affaires et nos plaisirs, nous saurions presque tout ce qui arrive de l’autre côté de la tombe.

No matter how numerous those souls that inhabit the world of the living in their low granite homes, or who live in the cemeteries or the desert moors, they are invisible to most eyes, and there exist few ears, who in the calm air of the night, can hear their gentle and silent flight. Yet, we are never in this world without news of this other world of mysteries, the world of souls and of death. They come to us in vague rumours, in distant sounds, signs and presages. No one dies without one of their close ones being advised. Certain persons have among others, the gift to see, they read more easily into the book of the future, they penetrate the secrets of death and they consistently have notices, presentiments; they perceive signs that remain hidden to the eyes of those who absorb the worries of this world. It is the sound around us, made by people, animals, that shut out for us, those light voices coming from the world of the dead; if we were not so taken entirely by our affairs and our pleasures, we would know almost all that takes place on the other side of the tomb.

Il ne faut pas croire au reste que les gens qui nient qu’il y ait des intersignes, aient été plus que les autres privés de ces avertissements, mais ils craignent ces choses d’épouvante (traou-spont), et ne veulent rien voir ni rien entendre de l’autre vie. Beaucoup de Bretons ont comme un recul involontaire devant ce monde mystérieux qui les environne de toute part, si étrangement mêlé au monde réel ; les choses de la mort ont pour eux un invincible attrait et en même temps ils les fuient, comme poussés par une instinctive et toute-puissante terreur. Il est dangereux d’être en trop fréquente et trop intime communication avec les âmes qui peuplent l’autre monde ; il est dangereux même d’en savoir trop sur l’autre vie ; ceux qui reçoivent du pays des morts de trop fréquents messages sont déjà marqués pour être la proie de l’Ankou. Il n’est point rare que ceux qui ont reçu quelqu’une de ces étranges révélations meurent eux-mêmes au bout de quelques semaines ou de quelques mois.

On dirait que de ce pays lointain qu’elles habitent les âmes tirent à elles les vivants et que lorsqu’elles viennent parmi les hommes elles les enchantent et les charment et les emmènent captifs jusque dans leur silencieuse demeure. Tous ceux qui ont été mêlés à quelqu’une de ces scènes étranges, qui précèdent parfois la mort, à ces cérémonies mystérieuses qu’accomplissent les âmes auprès de ceux qui vont mourir perdent à jamais la gaieté, la joie insouciante qui s’exhale en chansons ; ils restent graves, ensevelis en un rêve dont rien ne les peut éveiller ; c’est encore sur la terre des hommes qu’ils marchent, ils mangent et boivent comme les autres hommes ; comme les autres ils conduisent la barque et la charrue, mais ce ne sont déjà plus des vivants.

Nous sommes là en présence de conceptions très anciennes, l’idée du présage ne s’est point démêlée des autres idées auxquelles elle est entrelacée. Les apparitions des âmes sont à la fois signes et causes de mort ; aussi ne peut-on considérer l’intersigne comme un avertissement divin ; c’est la Mort elle-même qui décèle sa présence, c’est elle qui fait sortir du tombeau les âmes, qui vont devant elle, comme des hérauts, appelant les vivants ; tous ceux qu’elles rencontrent, elles les fascinent, elles les blessent, l’Ankou n’aura plus qu’à achever leur besogne. La nature entière frémit à l’approche de la mort : c’est l’oiseau (sparfel) qui voltige autour de la maison et vient frapper à la vitre, ce sont les chiens qui hurlent, c’est la pie qui vient se poser sur le toit. Pas une nuit ne se passe sans que quelques signes n’indiquent l’approche de la mort ; elle rôde sans cesse autour des hommes, les Bretons la sentent toujours présente et peut-être est-ce au sentiment que la grande mangeuse d’hommes est toujours là tout près d’eux, la main levée prête à s’abattre sur leur épaule, qu’il faut attribuer cette étrange tristesse, cette tristesse grave et songeuse, coupée d’éclats de gaieté, dont sont encore empreints ceux que n’ont point trop changés les idées nouvelles venues du pays de France.

Ce perpétuel contact avec la mort a imposé sur l’âme des Bretons une empreinte profonde ; il n’est pas de pays où ceux qui ne sont plus restent ainsi mêlés aux vivants ; les morts gardent, à vrai dire, leur place dans leur maison, le cimetière est comme un prolongement du foyer ; on y va, si j’ose dire, causer avec les siens. Il y a dans les grandes villes, à Paris par exemple, une sorte de religion de la mort, mais c’est, à tout prendre, bien plutôt le culte des tombeaux que le culte des morts ; on ne vit point en intimité avec eux. En Bretagne, il semble que ceux qui sont partis ne soient point partis tout à fait, qu’ils soient encore là tout près, qu’ils aient seulement changé de demeure, qu’ils habitent le cimetière au lieu de la maison. Aussi y a-t-il une vive résistance aux tentatives faites pour éloigner les cimetières des villages ; cela paraît aux Bretons une sorte de profanation, il leur semble qu’on brise les familles, qu’on contraint les vieux à habiter loin de la maison de leurs fils.

Further Reading:

Adkins, Madeleine, "Will the real Breton please stand up? Language revitalization and the problem of authentic language", 2013.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Charette in Nantes

In my late teens, I reproduced this scene from an illustration that I had found while devouring a French historical encyclopedia.

Back then, I was studying engineering, not history, and had only a faint notion of the Vendée wars. I ignored who he was - the man on the horse.

I only remember that I wanted to be him. Whoever he was...

Many years passed and I lost these old French volumes.

This year, while sleuthing around, I finally noted the words I had once written underneath the drawing to capture its context: "Entree de Charette a Nantes".

And everything clicked.

General Charette was a thirty year old royalist, an elected Vendée chief, who, following the French Revolution, deserted his life of ease to lead counter-revolutionaries in their guerilla-like fight against French troops.

For the republicans, this indomitable Breton represented the spirit of the counter-revolutionaries, then called, Brigands.

Here are some notes from an 1820 text to best describe this scene.  But before you read it, watch the people in the drawing. It all seems joyful, doesn't it?  Yet it is bittersweet, at least for the leaders of the counter-revolutionaries.

As it turns out, the amnesty was short lived.

The Setting

"The overthrow of the Jacobin system of terror, and the execution of Robespierre, led, in Vendée, to an amnesty.  Instead of proscription and carnage - a pardon, unity and protection was extended.

The Vendée chiefs, deserted by their followers, saw no alternative but to accept the proposed amnesty.

General Charette and the principal chiefs, in the name of the Vendéeans; and another chief, of the name Cormartin, representing that party which was distinguished by the appellation of Chouans, or Night-owls, agreed to live, in the future, subject to the laws of the republic and to deliver their arms.

On the 3rd of March 1795, the treaty was solemnly concluded, signed and ratified in Nantes.

The Scene

February 1795 - the entry of Charette and his companions into Nantes was announced by a discharge of twenty-one guns. Charette, who rode a beautiful charger, was dressed in blue, and begirt by a tricolored riband, his hat decorated with a feather. That general was at the head of the procession, followed by four of his lieutenants; then came a group of representatives; then another formed of the staff of Charette; [..] and followed by the remnants of the Nantes cavalry;

The representatives seemed to be elevated with joy: they ceased not to exclaim - Vive la paix; and the people repeated the cry. Charette seemed mournful, much affected. He received and returned, on both sides, the salutations. He said sometimes, Vive la religion, vive la paix; and some repeated Vive l'union."

Ahead of Charette, in my drawing, you can see a man brandishing a banner with the words, "Vive L'Union".  Here, we are speaking of the Vendée-Chouans union.

It was unlike Charette to sign this treaty which called upon the Vendee's total submission to France in exchange for their right to religion. Some believe that Charette had seen to a secret clause and it was this which led him to sign. The secret agreement was that the young king, Louis XVII, then languishing in the Temple, would be released on 14 June and delivered to him.

This was not to be.

It is said that the amnesty was feigned, only allowing the republicans to re-arm so that soon after this treaty, they resumed the fighting, leading to the eventual capture and execution of Charette in 1796, in the very city where he had ridden the year before.

I am glad that I have kept this drawing. I remember how it spoke to me while I drew it, I could almost hear the cheers.

Despite the events that would follow, the joy and eagerness for peace depicted in this Nantes scene are palpable. They spell relief. Understandable given the genocide that the Vendée had just lived.

But that, is another story.

More reading:

Christopher Kelly, History of the French Revolution and of the Wars Produced by that Memorable Event, T. Kelly (1820), p. 166